Product Management

The Product Manager as CEO: What You Need to Know

Written by Therese Padilla

Something that you often hear is the romantic idea that a product manager is more than just a “person in charge” – they’re the CEO of their product in a wide range of different ways. This mantra is often repeated to help explain what it is that product managers exactly do all day, as this is one position that is still relatively unclear after all these years. Even product managers sometimes offer this explanation because their role is often so misunderstood by those around them.

Unfortunately, it just isn’t true.

The idea that product managers and CEOs are one-in-the-same is a myth. It always has, and it always will be. (see our whitepaper, Business Anthropology, and the Product Manager)

The Reality of a Product Manager

In truth, CEOs and product managers differ in so many ways that you have to wonder how this myth was ever able to gain traction in the first place. CEOs aren’t singularly focused on an individual element like product managers are – their focus is much broader and all-encompassing. CEOs have a greater level of authority in the business as a whole, which in turn creates a higher degree of responsibility that goes along with it.

CEOs can also make the final decision regarding just about everything – the same cannot be said of the product manager. The product manager ANSWERS to the CEO. In many cases, the CEO answers to nobody (except shareholders).

The Voice of the Modern Product Manager

Another one of the fundamental differences between product managers and CEOs is that while they both have powerful voices, they also have DIFFERENT voices. Successful product managers don’t stand around all day, barking orders and giving instructions. They must be influencers. They must be motivators. They’re not trying to build something that will make themselves look good. They’re trying to build something that will make their COMPANY look GREAT.

Quality product managers must offer ideas free from ego and superficiality. Their brilliant idea is the team’s brilliant idea – credit is not something they’re concerned about it. They must also be willing to relinquish control once they’ve moved as far towards their end goal as they can, which is something a CEO never has to do.

Product Managers as Campaign Managers

With all this in mind, if you have to have a model to compare the role of a product manager to it certainly wouldn’t be the CEO – they share much more in common with a campaign manager.

Product managers need to be political. The best work is generated when everyone is functioning on all cylinders, which means making sure not to step on anybody’s toes. They must be able to elicit support from their various constituencies, which often means pulling different, disparate departments together and making sure that they’re all driving towards the same eventual goal. They must also be the voice of the customer, going out of their way to make sure that every decision made is one designed to ultimately please the people who matter the most.

And above all else, they are not able to push their team across the finish line through orders and dictatorial efforts, but to pull them there. To make sure that even when the team feels like they can’t go on or that they’ve gotten themselves into a corner with no way out, they can always be motivated and encouraged to take those last necessary steps that mean everything.

The idea that a product manager is the CEO of its product is very much a myth. In reality, the product manager is the PRODUCT MANAGER of its product. To say anything else is incredibly limiting to the hard work they do on a daily basis. Ask any professional who has been in the business for an appreciable period and they’ll all tell you the same thing: they wouldn’t have it any other way.

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About the author

Therese Padilla

Therese is President of the Association of International Product Marketing & Management. She is a product management professional with broad experience in all areas of product development and management, including consumer products, enterprise software in startups and large corporate environments. Therese created the first product management certification program at the AIPMM which she co-founded in 1998.